The Buzz

In 1939, a Nazi Submarine Slipped into One of Britain's Biggest Bases and Sunk a Battleship

Six months later, the commander of a German heavy cruiser sank a British destroyer off the coast of Norway, stayed on the scene to rescue 31 British seamen, congratulated them on putting up a good fight, and then recommended the British captain for a Victoria Cross. It is said to be the only time in British history that the award was given on the recommendation of an enemy.

In his announcement to the Commons, Churchill said the sinking of the Royal Oak would have only a minor effect on British naval readiness and answered questions including several as to why so many “boy sailors” were aboard the Royal Oak.

Three days after the U-47 attack, four Luftwaffe Junkers Ju-88 bombers also raided Scapa Flow in what was one of the first bombing attacks on Britain during the war. The attack badly damaged the battleship HMS Iron Duke, and one German bomber was shot down by an antiaircraft battery during the attack.

There exists an underlying and as yet unresolved mystery about the attack.

When Captain Prien reported on Scapa Flow, he stated that he had sunk the Royal Oak and that he had also torpedoed a second ship that night, a ship he identified as the battlecruiser HMS Repulse. The Repulse, however, had left Scapa Flow earlier in the day. Researchers have suggested that U-47 may have instead hit HMS Iron Duke, the British Atlantic Fleet’s flagship, the same ship later attacked by the four Ju-88 bombers. When those planes arrived at Scapa Flow on October 17, the Iron Duke already lay beached on Hoy Island and was reported to have a large hole in her bow.

The British Admiralty, however, never confirmed that HMS Iron Duke had been hit by a torpedo, possibly because it was considered too sensitive to report that the fleet’s flagship had been attacked by a German submarine inside a British anchorage.

A Board of Enquiry held shortly after the Royal Oak sinking found that there were 11 possible submarine routes into Scapa Flow still open. It also uncovered information that junior officers at the base had complained that Scapa Flow was not safe but that senior officers had chosen to ignore these views.

Admiral Sir Wilfred French, commander of the Orkney and Shetland Isles, was eventually held responsible for what had happened and was put on the retired list despite his insistence prior to the Royal Oak sinking that Scapa Flow needed additional safeguards. History has labeled the blame put on French as “unjust.”

In addition, when it became public knowledge that 126 of the 163 “boy sailors” on the ship had been killed—a fatality rate of 77 percent—it became generally accepted in the British Navy that the centuries-old practice of allowing young men under the age of 18 to serve on warships should be discontinued in all but the most exceptional circumstances.

In Germany the raid was celebrated as a triumph, and Commodore Dönitz was promoted to rear admiral. The sinking of the Royal Oak, which was the first of the five Royal Navy battleships and battlecruisers sunk in World War II, while having little effect on the naval superiority of the British, did establish, as Admiral Dönitz had envisioned, that the anchorage British planners had considered impregnable was in fact vulnerable, and it gave a solid body blow to British morale. The German Navy had shown it was capable of bringing the war home to Britain.

In the very last days of the war, Dönitz was named the last president of Germany, replacing German Führer Adolph Hitler after the latter killed himself on April 30, 1945.

Scapa Flow, which was capable of holding the entire Grand Fleet, was temporarily abandoned until its defenses could be improved, but it eventually became the main British naval base of the war. New block ships were sunk, booms and mines were placed over the main entrances, coast defenses and antiaircraft batteries were installed, and Churchill ordered the construction of a series of causeways to block the eastern approaches to Scapa Flow. They were built by Italian prisoners of war being held in Orkney.

In the months following the attack on the Royal Oak, Captain Prien and his crew continued to prove themselves one of Germany’s top U-boats. On their sixth patrol in June 1940, for example, they sank eight ships for a total of 51,483 tons of Allied shipping lost.

U-47 was last heard from in March 1941.

A radio message was received from her on the morning of March 7, sent from the North Atlantic near the Rockall Banks, west of Scotland. It was her last message. She is presumed to have been sunk there by the British destroyer HMS Wolverine and lost with all hands—including her commander, Günther Prien.

Today the Royal Oak, still lying beneath the waters of Scapa Flow, is a recognized war grave, and each year on October 14, a team of Royal Navy divers descends to the wreck. There they fly the Royal Ensign from her overturned hull.

This was authored by Chuck Lyons for the Warfare History Network, where this was first published here.

Image: Creative Commons. 

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